|Art by Nilah Magruder|
“And All the Trees of the Forest Shall Clap Their Hands” by Sharon Hsu (3156 words)
No Spoilers: In this rather grim take on portal fantasies, the narrator is a sort of sentient tree-person, named Dryad by a young boy who happens into their world from Earth, from England during probably one of the World Wars (most likely WWII, given the references to bombs dropping at the like). He soon returns with his sister, and the two enjoy their time in a time-disjointed fashion, because time passes much quicker in this other world than on Earth. Instead of the children growing up in an idyllic setting and becoming kings and queens through their adventures, the piece shows how ingrained empire and conquest is for these smol Britons, and the piece quickly veers into some troubling depictions. It’s a map of damage done, and a sort of confession from a being who’s real crime doesn’t seem to be the one that has landed them in prison.
Keywords: Portals, Family, CW- Incest, Exploitation, Resources, Prisons
Review: This story gets dark fast, dropping hints about what’s coming by framing the narrative as a kind of trial. An interrogation. A confession. Only the narrator here isn’t really confessing to the crime that they are accused of. No, the crime they feel in their heart, the one that really haunts them, is their complicity in the exploitation of their world. The way they were seduced into helping this boy and girl take over and use this magical world as a resource to power and finance their own rise in the “real world.” The piece looks sharply at colonization and the poison it inflicts, the myth that it creates of empire and greatness. And the blood and tears that are left when that colonization is fought off, the conquerors dead, their work still very much a wound upon the land. And for the narrator it goes deeper, their responsibility and guilt profound because they were the first to reach out in compassion and friendship. Because they didn’t see what happened coming. And they hurt for it. But not enough to make it right. Because there is no amount enough to make it right. And sometimes there is only destruction to fall back on. The closing of doors and the maintenance of distance, especially when one side cannot be trusted, and lives to exploit. It might seem a tragedy for some that the portal is destroyed, but for me that’s not the case. For me it’s not a failure when the narrator breaks it all. Because sometimes it is only through isolation that preservation and peace can really be possible. Because the system that Britain operates under is one of greed, and corruption, and they wouldn’t just let it go. And yes, there is a loss of a brighter future. But while the taint is still there, there is no moral failing in maintaining a quarantine. And it’s a gripping, wrenching read, putting the traditional portal fantasy into some uncomfortable and grim places and not apologizing for it. A fine read!
“Where You Linger” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (10007 words)
No Spoilers: This story centers a narrator going on something of an inner journey. Back into her past, into the string of people she was intimate with. It’s a strange kind of procedure, expensive but she’s desperate after a mistake she made led to the ending of her marriage. Without that to ground her, she needs to go back and relive what happened, maybe even try to change it, though that’s impossible. It’s a careful and messy situation the story chronicles, the narrator used to a web of cheating and sex, of constant movement. The piece focuses on her life when she was first having sex (and quite a bit of it) during late high school and through college. What it leaves out, though what is felt most in the end, are the missing years in that, and what they reveal about the person she’s become.
Keywords: Relationships, Sex, Cheating, Time Travel, Memories, Queer MC
Review: As I said above, the story really does focus most on the years between when the narrator first became sexually active (at 16) and when she met the woman who she would spend the next fifteen monogamous years with (at age 20). Which means that she’s going back through only four years, which is tiny in comparison to the fifteen that she was with her wife. Because she believes that there is where...the proof is that her choice to cheat on her wife was inescapable. Inevitable. That it must have been part of some pattern, because at that time she was involved in a very messy web of people hooking up and cheating on one another, trusting and then cheating again, all in the same small circle of people, all opening the same wounds over and over again. And it takes this relationship with the woman who would become her wife to break her out of that, to let her settle into monogamy. And she even gets to be her own companion on the way, picking up a younger version of herself so that the two are their own kind of Dante and Virgil taking a tour of this relationship quagmire and all the mistakes that the narrator feels she must have made. Except all of those mistakes also shaped her, were made where she was young, when things were fluid and where the consequences of those mistakes didn’t have fifteen years of careful building and trust. And by the end it becomes clear (or I felt more clearly) that what she learns going back over it all isn’t that this was something that was...meant to be. That her decision was grounded not in some pattern resurfacing after so long but out of the moment in which she made it, out of her fear and frustrations right then. And if anything her journey back in time is part of that, part of a kind of nostalgia, if that’s the right word, for a time when things seemed more open, more full of possibility, like the younger her she chaperones towards the present. And I like where it brings her as a character, able to see at last not only the full depth of what’s happened, but that she’s been avoiding taking responsibility for it. And she needs to in order to move on, and hopefully not make that mistake again, though even that doesn’t erase what happened, doesn’t make the loss suddenly go away. And it’s an emotionally complicated and rewarding story, one with some messy and dramatic relationship dynamics that resolve into something powerful and real. A wonderful read!
“The Spirit of the Leech” by Alex Bledsoe (2296 words)
No Spoilers: Miles is a fifteen-year-old boy raised strictly religiously, with the lesson to always spread the Good News. When he goes around asking who could use the Good News most, though, he almost balks when people tell him Enoch, who lives alone on the outskirts of Cades Bottom. The old man has lived there a long time, and there are a number of dark stories about him, but Miles pushes on anyway, sure of the lessons he’s been taught. But when he gets out to Enoch’s shack, things...aren’t what he expected. And that’s just the beginning of the surprises in store for him. It’s a quick, mostly humorous piece that still manages a bit of (wait for it...) biting satire.
Keywords: Religion, Vampires, Blood, Vaccines, Proselytizing
Review: I wasn’t expecting this story about a boy trying to go out and annoy an old man in the woods who turns out to be a vampire to be a critique on anti-vax people, but here we are. And, I mean, the setup for it is rather great. Because it’s showing the dangers of misinformation—how Miles sets out to spread the Word because that’s what he’s been taught, only he hasn’t quite learned that when people say that, they don’t quite mean it. Not completely. And it’s that kind of unspoken teaching, where the truth is acknowledged but never named, that allows for people to be racist and bigoted without feeling they can be called on it. Because it’s just about their deeply held religious convictions. And, well, those convictions tend to make especially their children vulnerable, because they truly are at the mercy of their parents for what they are taught and if they are vaccinated and these things follow them. In this case (and in the case of other vaccines) by making it so that he doesn’t have any defense against something very dangerous, that will kill him if given a chance. Religion is no shield against things like that. My only complaint here is that it’s not a virus that Miles is dealing with, but a vampire, and one who becomes a sort of fictional minority who literally kills a child (thus sort of proving that the witch hunt that saw the deaths of so many vampires might have been, you know, a good thing, which just muddies the waters of the story a bit in a way I wasn’t wholly comfortable with). Which complicates the piece in ways I don’t think are strengthening. Still, it’s a cute story, and makes a solid point, and is certainly worth checking out!
“A tenjō kudari (“ceiling hanger” yōkai) defends her theft” by Betsy Aoki
This piece unfolds as a story about a kind of demon, a kind of ghost, and how they came to be in the distance between dreamer and ceiling, between bed and heaven. The piece draws on mythology, on folklore, bringing to life a being who is seen as a monster, and a sort of ghoul. And yet the poem gives them the viewpoint, them the voice. Theirs is the perspective the reader sees through. Not the terrified or unsuspecting person looking up in sleep to find something hanging above them, but the person looking down, remembering death, remembering injustice. And bit by bit reaching down. It’s a creepy read, for all that I don’t feel the horror of the “ceiling hanger” is really the center. Rather, it’s the horror of the act that created this being that carries much more darkness and importance. And it makes them not a creature of the night preying on the innocent but a conduit of justice seeking to redress the wrongs that have been committed, that haven’t been acknowledged or responded to. The structure of the poem is airy, spaced out, for me reminiscent of the slow breaths that the narrator is taking. And the title speaks to this as well, the narrator defending their theft. Defending as in justifying it? Or as in making sure that they are the one to take his life, that they are the one to kill him, and not someone else? Either way, the result is a poem that is creeping and quiet and full of a need for retribution and justice that has brought this person back as a “ceiling hanger” to do the job themself. A great read!
“The Death of the Gods” by Leah Bobet
This is a beautiful and rather haunting poem that for me speaks of different kinds of loss and memory. The piece unfolds around a woman who seems timeless, and through the piece it follows...a decline of sorts to me. A gradual diminishing. At least, the feeling I get and from the title, there is a sense that something is leaving the world. That this woman might once have been a god, or tied to gods, might once have expected so much, and has come through the time when that was possible, when her actions were huge, to a present that is contemporary but smaller. Where people are only people-sized and there are no giants, no demigods. The gods are dead here and in their place are grave markers and memories for the woman but not necessarily for her children, who now are mortal, human. The piece looks a lot at hands, at the size of them, at the sky and the earth, at running, movement, time of day. The piece seems to be looking back, to “the old days” when there were gods, when there was magic, grace. The opening lines I think captures the mood there. Gradual. Incremental. For me this is a poem about slow change and transition, and woman who is able to notice. And maybe it’s a loss of potential that she’s feeling, a loss of the sense that the world were boundless, infinite, and divine. That there were being who were in charge of the natural world enough to ensure that it would always be there. And this woman, this mother, is seeing in her children a generation that will face a harder life, a harder road, because that’s not the case and the world has shrunk so much thanks to human actions that the magic of the gods could never fit. It’s a strange but resonating poem, that is very much worth sitting down and spending some serious time with. It’s quiet, and mournful, but with a lot of beauty and care. A great way to close out the issue!